An Infallible Quest

"Do you see any rocks in there?" I ask, watching the teenaged boy dredging muck out of the lakeshore near my house. I am preparing for a trip. He is likely earning minimum wage this morning, making the beach more amenable to toddlers and tourists. "Big ones," I clarify. "Rocks big enough to hold in your hand." Through the clear water I notice that the bottom is totally lined with tiny pebbles, explaining why he seemed to roll his eyes at first. ('Does he see any rocks in there?' What a ridiculous question. There must be millions.)

A few moments pass, then after some prodding and searching he hands me a small, smooth black rock with a chip out of one end. Its surface is slick in my hand, and little drops of Lake Winona fall into the grass as I head back to the car. I've got the last thing on my list. I'm almost ready to leave.


For the five days between June 5th and June 9th, 2009, Tom and I set out on our motorcycles to see what we could see.

We'd originally planned to loop Lake Michigan, coming up from the bottom around the right side, then over into Minnesota and back down through Wisconsin, but at the last minute we elected to go south instead. Better weather this way, we figured, and less likelihood of having lake-effect winds blow us into oncoming traffic.

The closest thing we had to a destination was Mammoth Cave, in lower-mid Kentucky -- only a few hours away according to Google but a good deal more distant when you embrace Tom's and my staunch No-Freeway road trip philosophy. After all, who wants to just charge down the superslab, tunnel-visioned and 18-wheeler deafened and only trying to reach a destination? Not us. Plentiful side excursions to small towns, scenic overlooks and natural wonders turned Google's quick jaunt into a thousand-mile round trip which neither of us (nor our butts) will soon forget.

Which was, of course, the point: Though we aimed our front wheels in the general direction of the cave, we knew well that all we were really looking for was adventure. A generous amount of zig-zagging and side-tracking on the way was precisely what we had in mind. Besides, we figured that interesting things -- the ones you might seek out from the beginning, if only you knew about them -- would kind of just present themselves.

And sure enough, our mission was technically accomplished just a few miles from Tom's house, when we got stuck in traffic near the Mt. Comfort airport just long enough to marvel at F-18s swooping through the sky -- the grand finale of an airshow we just happened to be passing by. As we coasted to a stop behind endless rows of event traffic, five of the jets burst from behind a clump of trees in the distance and exploded across the sky like black-streaked fireworks. I don't know about Tom, but I felt awfully fortunate, and momentarily wished I had a control stick instead of handlebars. Also that these pesky tires didn't have to stay planted on the concrete all the time.

After that we saw a dead cow lying in a field, a black cat darting across the road in front of us, and thankfully no other troublesome omens before pulling into a small town for lunch. I wish I could remember the name of the place -- or the restaurant -- but it was appropriately dive-y and smoky, and we could tell that in addition to looking like space aliens in reflective cordura suits we were probably the only people in there who didn't go to high school together. I did get a photo of the "Wigwam" beside it, though, and for some reason just really enjoyed seeing that word engraved in stone.

By nightfall we had made it to Nashville, Indiana, regionally known for the beautiful autumn colors on the many trees there. Being that it's not exactly Fall right now, traffic was light and we had a great time flying -- slowly, mind you -- through the park on our earth-bound aircraft. There was just enough time to get some provisions at a local grocery before heading back to our campsite in Yellowwood State Forest, where we bedded down for the night right there under the stars and swaying treetops, their leaves still a boring-old green that looked plenty beautiful to me.

In the morning we awoke early, and freezing, and I'm fairly sure those two phenomena were connected. Tom had assured me that sleeping in only boxer shorts would be my warmest option inside the military-grade sleeping bag, which is probably true but does make for a bracing encounter with the morning air when it comes time to get up.

As we departed Yellowwood and forged westward, eyes peeled for a good place to stop for breakfast, I got to seem knowledgeable and prescient by swerving us into the Scholar's Inn in Bloomington. A great cup of coffee and a vegetarian omelette cannot taste better than when you've just woken up freezing on the forest floor.

There's a lot to see in Bloomington, of course, but over the breakfast table Tom and I had laid our plan: the Greene County Viaduct. An old tour book I'd brought described it as "breathtaking," but had neglected to include a photo, so we figured we'd better go find this thing, supposedly located somewhere between Solsberry and Tulip, Indiana, and perhaps take a picture of our own.

And breathtaking it was: two thousand feet of rusty iron, stretching between two sides of a vast river valley and soaring 150 feet above the amber farm fields. Our navigation skills were put to the test just tracking it down, I'll admit, and Captain Kline actually had to do some shrewd reckoning to determine where exactly this thing had to be. We got to meet some locals out for a joyride on a pack of 4-wheelers, though, including a couple of young boys who were bent on riding up the trail to the top of the bridge.

One decided his best chance was to "borrow" his dad's 4-wheeler and take on the mountain. His plans were quashed by the dad, though, who ran over to the revving machine, laughing the whole way, and lifted the back end enough so that the boy could only spin his wheels. "You're not taking my 4-wheeler up that hill!" he told the kid. "Why not?!" the kid shot back. "Because you're a peckerhead!" was the answer the dad gave, and Tom and I both burst out laughing, right there under the ancient iron landmark in the middle of nowhere.

Once we'd had our fill of viaducts, and I'd taken a satisfactory amount of pictures using my rickety plastic traveling companion -- a Holga camera with which I was determined to shoot one 12-exposure roll per day, we figured we'd probably better get moving southward toward Kentucky.

This route took us within spitting distance of the West Baden Springs Hotel, though, and seeing as its massive unsupported atrium is proclaimed the "Eighth Wonder of the World," well, we didn't see much choice but to stop in and have a look at that too. As a bonus, we discovered more good coffee -- not to mention pistachio ice cream -- in the hotel's cafe. [You can see pictures of all this stuff on my Flickr page, naturally.]

After that it was high time we made a break for the Ohio River. Evening was fast approaching on Day Two of our Mammoth expedition, and here we were, not even close to being in the correct state for our destination.

No stinking schedule was going to shove us onto the main highways, though. We've still got our standards. Two-lane blacktop threaded us south from French Lick almost to the border, at which point we veered east on the Ohio River Scenic Byway and flowed alongside the water for miles and miles. The road runs just about parallel to the vastly inferior Highway 64 (See Tom for a succinct summary of that particular stretch of blandness) but follows the contour of the river through hills and valleys, in which the coolness of the air drifts up over you and fills your helmet like a happy sigh.

Highway 62 -- also known as the Byway -- would be a treasure even if it didn't take you to Leavenworth, Indiana, where a wonderful restaurant sits right on what must be the prettiest bend in the river's 981 miles. We dined on fresh-baked biscuits and homemade preserves and waited for our food to come, watching barges inch down the river outside the restaurant window and discussing railroad trestles, world wonders and where our adventures might take us the next day.

"Kentucky," you might have guessed. Day Three found us finally crossing the bridge into the Bluegrass State just south of Corydon, and searching in vain for a detailed road atlas in upwards of six roadside stops, including gas stations, auto-parts stores, drug stores, a hardware store and a supermarket. We'd had these fabulous county-by-county atlases of Indiana, you see, and we couldn't imagine getting by without them. But all we could turn up now were flimsy state maps, so we did the best we could and weaved our way southward along secondary (and tertiary, and occasionally perhaps quaternary) roads, observing stuff like horse farms and salvage yards and signs offering free donkeys.

And that's how we got Pedro.

Just kidding. But near there we did stop in a small town that seemed 2/3rds abandoned, and I dutifully dragged out the Holga and snapped a few more pictures toward my roll-a-day goal. There was just something about looking through the glass windows and doors of a storefront on a building whose roof has long caved in, and seeing all the little weeds and trees growing up through the rubble where once must have stood barber's chairs, or hardware, or dental floss display racks, (or perhaps decent state maps, I suppose) that more or less required that I take a picture.

By the afternoon we were riding our motorcycles onto the ferry and into Mammoth Cave Park. It's a little disorienting but thoroughly fun to straddle a bike as it floats across a river, and, even better, once we were inside the park the road got fantastically curvaceous and lined with trees. Wild turkeys loitered along the shoulder, turning their pretty heads momentarily to see the two space men coast by on their overstuffed contraptions.

A good-sized hike along the Wet Prong trail showed us miles of forest wrecked by last winter's ice storm, then a still and peaceful creek bed, criss-crossed with rutted horse tracks. Once again, we'd headed out in search of nothing in particular, and managed to find it without any trouble at all.

On the walk back to the bikes I thought a lot about how much Nature we'd encountered in just the few days of our trip so far. From the black cat to the dead cow, to the wild turkeys and the jumping fish, and the random dog who wandered through our campsite at Yellowwood, sniffing around for handouts, and all the bugs who'd smacked into our helmets so far, and the deer we'd seen crashing through the underbrush dangerously close to the road, reminding both of us of Tom's accident last fall. We slowed down considerably after that. We saw free donkeys and strange-looking plants (see photo) and we saw what seemed to be wild pigs, which are sort of startling when you spot them rooting through the tall grasses, initially seeming like humongous feral rodents before your barnyard biology knowledge kicks in. "Pigs," you think to yourself. "Must be somebody's pigs."

I'd even include the two sport bike doofuses we met alongside a sharp curve in Brown County, one covered in mud alongside his equally coated crotch-rocket, having somehow miscalculated the turn and plunged handlebars-first into a mucky drainage ditch. (Both were okay, so we just hosed off the hapless guy's face shield with Tom's drinking water, irritated them by photographing their mishap and moved on.)

Nature -- living things, doing things, everywhere we'd turned. It shouldn't have surprised me, but it did a little bit.

When we got back from the hike we were both pretty hungry, and thirsty, and we both agreed it would be a good idea to see if we could find the park's hotel. Again, success. The room was small and the decor exactly what you'd picture in a national park established in 1941, with infrequent if any updates since then. I really liked it. The hotel restaurant was featuring cherry cobbler ala mode, and I did my best not to freak out openly.

That night, in our tiny paneled headquarters, Tom and I discussed our descent into the cave. Mammoth Cave got its name not for featuring the bones of mastodons or anything like that, but for being three times bigger than any other cave in the world, and featuring more than 360 miles of caverns and tunnels to explore.

So we had to do a little thinking.

It came down to a tour lit by lanterns only, which sounded fun, and a briefer "Grand Avenue Tour" that hit many of the cave's highlights, and one more: The Wild Cave Adventure. Six hours underground. Between five and six miles of distance covered, through some of the tightest, gnarliest, steepest, trickiest and most amazing sections in the whole cave system. We were in.

It turned out that we were the only ones in, actually, save for one incredibly cool 60-something fellow who works in a shipyard in Maine. He was relieved that we signed up; otherwise they were going to have to cancel the tour. So we and Mickey and our two guides, Heather and John, slammed shut the door behind us and descended into the dark about 10 am, and didn't emerge until almost dinnertime.

Down there we saw just as much nature as we'd seen before, only darker: soaring cathedrals and bottomless pits, and blind cave crickets and impassable passageways, and uncountable snug squeezes and sheer walls, and we even crossed paths with a bunch of regular folks -- the ones who took the regular tours, for sane people -- right around lunchtime. They turned from their sandwiches and fruit juice cups and stared at us openly, as Tom, Mickey, Heather, John and I trudged past all covered in cave dirt and sweat, a couple of us still blinding passersby with the lamps on our helmets, having gotten too exhausted and exhilarated to remember to turn them off. It was, as the brochure had promised, an Adventure.

And then it was time to ride home.

We decided to set our course so we'd cross back into Indiana at Madison, a beautiful little river town that Charles Kuralt demanded be "sealed in plastic and never disturbed." I don't think the local chamber of commerce was quite able to pull that off, but it does remain an awfully charming place to visit and spend a few hours. Especially if you haven't just squirmed through six miles of wet rocks, then ridden a couple hundred miles on a motorcycle. Instead, Tom and I took in the sights from a slow coasting pace, then pressed on to Clifty Falls Park, where we planned to camp for the night.

Alas, we arrived well after 11 p.m. and the campgrounds were closed. The whole park was closed, truth be told, but the guy at the gate seemed sympathetic to our cause, and after I offered him some bug spray to combat the swarm of insects attacking his booth he agreed to wave us through -- as long as we headed straight to the hotel and didn't make much noise to get him in trouble.

At that point, as it was approaching midnight and I still needed to more or less cross Indiana lengthwise the following day, a hotel room sounded pretty darn good.

We crashed at the Clifty Falls Inn -- really nice, by the way -- and fell asleep dreaming of dark caverns and tight tunnels and startled tourists and sleepy river towns. Tom did, at least -- as I undressed to get ready for bed I noticed Nature burrowing into my upper thigh, apparently having been sucking blood since the day before, when it must have gotten to me during our hike.

That night in the inn I spent about an hour trying to research tick removal, all while pawing at my skin and singeing my leg hair with Tom's campfire lighter and swiping a shaker of salt from the hotel restaurant. The salt didn't seem to affect the tick much, for the record. Eventually I got him out, though, and slept harder than I can remember sleeping in a long time. I couldn't decide whether to chalk it up to exhaustion or blood loss.

From there it would be a fairly straight shot back home. After breakfast we took a quick ride and a hike through one of the park's trails, and I got a great photograph of a big gooey slug, and and accompanying video of him that very much looks like slow-motion, but isn't. More nature.

We didn't have quite as much time to weave and wander during this leg of the journey, since the park is a good six-hour ride from my house and I was really looking forward to getting home and seeing Lope and Veda.

Still, we stayed off I-74 and I-69, and got to see some more interesting stuff, like small towns that time forgot, or perhaps that Charles Kuralt finally did manage to sneak in and hermetically seal. There was the tree growing out of the courthouse in Greensburg, as you may have heard, and a buffet lunch outside some small town, with a seemingly endless row of dishes that all seemed like the specialty you hope your favorite aunt will bring to the family reunion.

By the time I finally got home, Penny was out on the upstairs porch with Veda, waving to me. Vince sprinted down the stairs to say hello, and I peeled off my riding suit with great relief, my head hurting a little and eyeballs still buzzing in their sockets from too many hours of stimulation.

It felt good to be back. Veda seemed to have missed me somewhat -- maybe just wishful thinking on my part, but I sure liked holding her again. It took a while for me to get the opportunity, though, since Lope had put herself in full-on Robomama mode during the five days I was gone, and had her Systems in place and everything to take care of our daughter without any outside assistance. I practically had to tie her up just to get her to let me help again.

And that was it. The journey had come to an end, and all that remained was to unpack the bike and develop the film and settle my mind and to, eventually, tell the story.

Which reminds me: I almost forgot. Back that last night of the trip, as Tom and I crossed the river back into Indiana, I'd stopped there on the bridge for one more mission. I tossed my smooth black rock out over the railing and listened as it fell down toward the water. I'd put a little piece of Lake Winona into to the Ohio River, and finished what a glacier must have started millions of years ago.

And as the rock fell through the dark night and plopped through the river's surface, drifting down toward the murky bottom, I like to think it passed some interesting stuff. Perhaps a sunken barge, or the roots of ancient trees. Maybe it lodged into an old shoe somebody lost, decades and decades ago. Maybe it got carried on a current a few miles downstream, flipping and swirling as the swift water flowed past. Or maybe it just sank straight down, and nestled into some soft brown mud at the very, very bottom, where it will rest for perhaps another few million years. I'll never know.

But either way I'm sure it was an adventure, and it was really fun to confirm, once again, that no matter where you go, or what you do, whether you head south from your driveway on twisty two-lane roads or down into the ground along slippery dark passageways, or even down into the Ohio River, flung by somebody who had you fished out of a quiet lake only a few days before, if you're out looking for nothing in particular, you're absolutely guaranteed to find it.


Hello, I'm Ryan Noel. said...

Epic. A baseline requirement for an epic tale is that the subject must at some point collapse not knowing whether it's from "exhaustion or blood loss." Congratulations on living fully.

Colin said...

Thanks, Ryan. I'm glad you enjoyed the story, and I really appreciate you actually reading the whole thing. I know it's kind of, well, epic.

And hey, thanks again for providing the Holga. It made the trip much more exciting and exotic, honestly, and was a critical component in my tank bag from the moment we set out.